Flock rocks – and Microsoft is not going to take over the world. Deal with it.

It was Danny Bradbury that first mentioned Flock to me, a couple of weeks ago when I had one of my regular little tirades against Facebook (in general, I keep these out of my blogging because I might look back and find myself blaming the tool – but if I get one more request to bite a chump, I shall scream.) “I can’t cope with all the messages,” I said to Danny.” “You need Flock,” he said, a statement I promptly forgot until I saw it mentioned in an article by James Governor earlier today. That’s when I saw it, not when he wrote it.

Two mentions is a strike in this game, so I promptly went off and installed the self-styled social networking browser, Flock. Simple in Ubuntu – if you’re a geek who isn’t phased by creating a few symbolic links, editing config files, installing that pesky extra library or the (unmentioned) fact that there’s already a command in Linux called “flock”. ‘Tis fortunate, I am. But I digress. I ran it up, Flock that is, and fell in love.

As an analyst I need to retain a level of product independence, but phew, that’s hard to do with Flock. It integrates a whole bunch of tools – blog reader, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook feeds and a bunch more – into a Web browser, to the extent that it feels like I have an HTML rendering engine as part of the package, rather than a browser with a bunch of plugins. You’ll have to try it for yourself but for me, and from a usability perspective, I found myself an instant convert. As for the Facebook thing from Danny – indeed, the king of clutter is rendered as innocuous as Twitter.

Under the bonnet, Flock is built on top of Mozilla, just like Firefox (and I’m sure a real tech-head could tell you how the two packages align – indeed you might as well get it from the horse’s mouth). That’s about all I want to say about that. Meanwhile, we have the (unavoidably) ubiquitous, bigger picture.

I’ve been quite vocal about the lack of innovation in open source in the past. To be fair, open source wasn’t mooted to be innovative – it was from the outset planned to offer “open” (aka freely available) alternatives to proprietary software. All well and good – but a bit frustrating sometimes, when the game has seemed to be more about delivering like-for-like functions. Why redevelop what’s already there, I wondered, when there was a wealth of new potential to be tapped in the form of new functionality?

Well, innovation has been coming for a while, but its been building on top of the open source layer, rather than within it. Sites such as Google of course are built on the LAMP stack, as are many others: as Stephen O’Grady pointed out, MySQL is the Toyota Corolla of the Web world, offering an easy on-ramp for many a startup. From the shoebox-strewn plains of San Jose to places so esoteric we know them only as ‘offshore’, developers are building on top of both open and proprietary platforms with impunity, using whichever languages make technical sense for the job in hand.

And the game is just starting to get exciting. Despite my views on Facebook, and taking into account the debate around the more insidious risks to privacy, I have to take my hat off to the guys that built a service scalable enough to accomodate the massive growth it has seen. Social networking is a work in progress – we’re going to see plenty of failures, and plenty of pundits dissing products before they’ve had a chance to find their niche. And, every now and again we’re going to see moments of pure joy when a bunch of ideas and technologies come together and create something that really does affect how we live and work, for the better. It’s too early to tell whether Flock will deliver one of those moments, but (as with every new innovation), I sincerely hope so. Flock offers a user experience which, for me, is head and shoulders above that offered by “traditional” browsers – the category occupied by both Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Which brings me to Microsoft. I’m sorry, but the idea that the company holds any kind of defensible monopoly position in this day and age, is just laughable. Is anyone, seriously, still “afraid” of Microsoft’s position? Sure, It’s got a stonking portion of desktop market share – but applications like Flock are symbolic of just how tenuous Microsoft’s hold in any area could be, should the combination of functions be right in any alternative platform. This is not new – we’ve seen it already with Google, literally pulling the search rug out from under Microsoft’s feet. How did this happen? Because people chose to use it, and Google had the business model to leverage all those eyeballs. If we believe IT to be a truly democratising force then we should be letting users vote with their technology choices, all the while ensuring that there exist appropriate levels of governance built into international law, so nobody feels locked into any technology platform.

This latter point is important, as we know the lengths that many technology companies have gone to, to get one over on their “partners”. Microsoft’s in the list of course, but it’s by no means a list of one. We should remain vigilant – both to uncommercial acts and the underhand ways in which the law can be played to try to stifle the competition. I agree with James Governor’s view on the recent EU announcements being a waste fo taxpayers’money – “The world is changing. Documents today are not static. They flow through networks, largely enabled by a bunch of web standards. Some companies choose to go end to end Microsoft, for its “integrated innovation”. Other companies choose to go a non-Microsoft route to avoid integrated aggravation. That’s choice.” James goes on to say: “To be fair all its doing is announcing investigations made at the behest of complaints from Opera and ECIS (otherwise known as the Anyone But Microsoft lobbying club). In other words these investigations may lead nowhere.” What a pointless exercise.

For me personally, I shall continue to use non-Microsoft products as well as Microsoft products, deciding based on preference and functionality – that’s personal choice. Corporations and public bodies, large and small are equally free to do the same, with the added factors of technical skills, administrative costs and migration challenges often keeping them with whatever’s the incumbent. It’s unlikely we’ll see that many migrations off Oracle and onto MySQL in the short term, and neither do I expect many private organisations will be in a hurry to convert all of their old documents to any form of XML, even if they needed to – which they don’t of course. That’s the nature of legacy, but its not where the real action is: developing new, innovative technologies and applications that really do enable us to do things that are different than in the past. Whatever happens to Flock in the future, let us take from it this one lesson and let innovation be the goal, wherever it comes from.

Blogged with Flock

Flock rocks – and Microsoft is not going to take over the world. Deal with it.

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